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The Beach House

I recently purchased a beach house. I've been saying this a lot lately — telling everyone I know and everyone I used to know on this island where I grew up. I'm hoping it sounds fancy. Like, "I'd had my eye on this adorable little cottage for the longest time and finally I thought I'm just gonna grab it! "or "I had a country house and a city house, so I needed a beach house" or maybe, "I heard they don't actually let you buy oceans — so I had to buy something near the ocean."

What really happened is that I had been homeless for almost a year and couldn't think of anywhere else to go but home. For me, being homeless isn't as dire as it sounds. As a musician, I often pack up my belongings and put them in storage before a tour to avoid paying rent on an empty apartment, but at times like these I've always underestimated the effect of placelessness on a psyche. It's lonely going from city to city, not belonging anywhere, especially knowing that you really don't belong anywhere.

So home beckoned. A wacky, little island in New England that I remembered mistily. I mean my memories were misty, but they were also memories of mist. A foggy world, but romantic in that. I realized that the clanging buoys and hermit crabs of my childhood were things my kids didn't have and suddenly, they seemed awfully important. I decided to give them salt water and lots of it.

So I bought the second cheapest house on the island, the first was an intriguing piece of real estate in someone's back yard that was without indoor plumbing. That one was a genuinely inexpensive property, but it lacked the fourth wall that would classify it as a building. It also didn't have closets.

The house I did buy is pretty funny, too. It's full of spiders and, for some reason, hooks. All different sizes and kinds of hooks. My four-year-old says witches and pirates used to live here — the witches left the spiders, the pirates left the hooks. Maybe they did, I don't really care; everything about our beach house makes us happy, no matter who used to live here. Turns out, compared to homelessness, a house is really, really good. We coo over its idiosyncrasies, treating this tiny little building (technically, it is a building, it has a fourth wall and everything) like a child with low self esteem. We are our house's spin doctors, spinning every feature up into the air and into the realm of fantasy. Rotting parts of it are "rustic", drop ceilings are "kitschy" and anything misshapen is evidence of architectural significance.

"Check out this scratched and bruised linoleum, so authentic. Like a church basement floor. I like churches and basements, don't you?"

"You know, the size of this place really captures the essence of smallness. The bathroom is chamber pot-close. So convenient!"

"Sure is a heck of a lot of dirt out there in the yard, kids! I read an article about dirt once; apparently it's good for planting things in."

The house itself can't know what hit it. It must think we're the nicest people in the world, when really we're just grateful. We're especially grateful for the things this beach house doesn't have: no driftwood, no shell decoupage, no nautical ropes used as railings or anchors as lawn ornaments. When you walk in the door, you don't smell the must of a thousand wet bathing suits, ghosts of summers past.

It's also located in an actual neighborhood, full of human people, not preps on spring break or drunks on vacation, and so lacks the retail detritus that serves those people: obscene t-shirts, clam cakes and eight dollar beers. There are no googly-eyed walnut shell poodles or day-glo bikinis. If I suddenly need any of these things, I don't know what I'll do because they aren't here. This quiet part of the island isn't popular enough to have any crap.

I don't know why it isn't popular. Maybe because the ocean here is so real. It's full of guys. Guys who live there; not surfers, but minnows, crabs, even bluefish sometimes, a spectacular sight. Every now and then, bluefish just go apeshit. When this happens, fishermen race to the water, some jangling down the street on foot, balancing their tackle boxes and poles, some screeching up to the shore in pick up trucks, all with wild looks on their faces. If you ask them what's up, they don't stop. They keep jangling or screeching, shouting "The blues are running!" over their shoulder.

And running isn't the half of it. The blues are flying — up out of the water and smacking into each other, splashing back down and jumping again, racing down the beach in the swift current. It's crazy. A feeding frenzy seen from above the water gets your imagination going, too: that's where I was swimming this morning.

"I know a guy who got killed by bluefish," says a fisherman wistfully. Clearly, he's thinking that this'd be a great way to go. "Had one on his line that he was fighting and he fell in. They chewed a bunch o' pieces off him."

I am horrified. "The fish killed him?!"

"Well, he had a heart attack down there." The man casts his line out to sea, reels it back in. "It was his time. He loved to fish."

I wonder if the dead man would have agreed with him "down there" in the middle of a feeding frenzy, his chest compressed, pulse racing, pieces of him getting chewed off. I bet I love to fish wasn't his last thought.

There are other ways to die out here, apparently — on this pristine shoreline. Seeing me swim laps in the bay one afternoon, a neighbor suggests that I keep my head above water. "You can get run over by a boat pretty easy if you don't look where you're going," she says, smiling.

Run over? By a boat? I flashed on my dreamy Jacque Cousteau view of the ocean floor: gently swaying vegetation, darting fish, slate blue mussels. I felt so peaceful on my afternoon swims. And all the while I was just a target for some noisy motorboat full of partying tourists. I'd be reaching down to pick up a starfish and the drunk captain would forget to steer for a moment. The last thing I'd see would be a school of minnows scattering to avoid the rudder which'd bonk me on the head as the partiers roared away. Then the bluefish would come.

"Happened to my cousin," says the neighbor, still smiling.

Summer is waning, of course. I'm trying to remember what happens next here on the island, because the kids are asking. Autumn leaves are pretty ("foilage"), but also cold, brilliant sun on electric blue water. You can't swim in the fall, but honestly, we aren't too eager to get back in the water right now, what with all the hazards.

I'm thinking about apples these days. The crazy kind of real apple you only find in New England that you eat right off the tree. The skin is mottled and it tastes chalky, but good chalky. One kind is only available for two weeks, but they're so wonderful that their wonderful-ness lasts you all year.

I'll have to teach the kids about real apples. Maybe they can plant some in our new dirt.

÷ ÷ ÷

Kristin Hersh is the lead singer and guitarist for Throwing Muses and 50FootWave. A longtime favorite here at Powell's, she blogs for us periodically — and her blogs are always a welcome surprise. You can hear her words and music on our most recent Bookcast.

One Response to "The Beach House"

    Miss Gretchen October 3rd, 2007 at 7:52 pm

    Girlfriend, _where is your book?!_
    I don't mean to diss blogs or whatever, but I would _soooooo_ read a _real book_ of your essays, or memoirs, or "slightly falsche nonfiction" or whatever they call the Sedaris-type essays of today. And I've been _very crabby_ lately about fiction, and non-fiction, and only want to read Dostoyevsky. But you pull me in every time, just like Al Pacino in "Godfather 3," so that says a lot. You show this entry to some publisher and I promise to buy at full price your book. Here, I'm going to place an order at Powells right now for some books, to show I mean business.

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